LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday’s fierce 21-minute naval gun battle between the two Koreas was unfortunate and tragic for several reasons — not just for the loss of lives on both sides. The deadly duel splashed cold water on South Korea’s sudden place in the sun. Its soccer team had just completed its surprisingly successful 2002 World Cup run, and despite ominous predictions of temperamental clashes between Seoul and Tokyo — not usually the closest of pals — the two countries’ management of the games had proved exemplary.

No one knows for sure whether the clash was motivated by a food-hungry North Korea in dire need of greater access to fishing waters, its jealousy of the South’s World Cup success or by elements of the South Korean military eager to punch out the North’s lights. But it would seem that only a loser Stalinist regime like Pyongyang would want to spoil the Cup afterglow. What’s sadder is the propensity to use the incident to undercut President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy of aggressive diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

The argument is that Kim is naive, soft on communism and beating a dead policy horse. The naval clash thus handed a golden opportunity not only to political opponents of Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party, who face a December nationwide election that looks increasingly desperate, but also to policy wonks and media critics in Seoul and Washington who harbor deep doubts about the policy.

Their sincerity is not in question — just their logic. The fact of the matter is that the naval gun duel is not an argument for burying sunshine at sea; on the contrary, it’s an argument for future South Korean governments to stick to their diplomatic guns and stay the sunshine course. Regarding Pyongyang, Kim is, at most, guilty of miscalculation — not of any childish naivete about the crude nature of that regime.

At 77, he wasn’t born yesterday and feels as emotional about the misery of the people in the North and as angry about Pyongyang’s craven incompetence as anyone. Moreover, he is no peacenik: He fully backs the presence of the 37,000-strong U.S. military commitment, there to deter aggression hand-in-hand with the South Korean armed forces, a far more competent corps than is generally appreciated.

To be sure, Kim probably placed too many Blue House chips on his gut instinct that the North was more deeply a Korean culture than a communist one. After all, Korea in one way or another has been around for more than 4,000 years (the North Korean Communists for far less than that, thankfully). The gamble of his historic trip North two years ago was that even the stubborn Communists in power would realize they had more of a future betting on their mutual Korean-ness than on their failed communism. But if Kim erred, why hang the man in effigy?

Although commendably avoiding any “I-told-you-so” crowing about the alleged North Korean aggression, the Bush administration used the occasion to announce it was withdrawing its standing offer to negotiate with the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Initially appalled at the very supposition of sunshine — trying to make nice with those communists — Bush’s top foreign-policy officials (experienced and professional) had been gravitating toward a more neutral, less overtly judgmental position about Kim. They may not love sunshine, but, hey, what’s the alternative? A thunder-and-lightning policy?

With so much expenditures and administrative self-esteem committed to the war on terror, the United States could hardly wish for big trouble on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. really doesn’t want to up the ante: Warmongering could prove very costly.

When the clash erupted, Kim, as fate would have it, was in Tokyo, where he caught Japan’s otherwise besieged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a good mood. The veteran Liberal Democratic Party figure generally leans markedly rightward on defense and military matters. But he complimented the visiting South Korean Nobel Peace prize winner on his Northern policy and expressed a public wish to deepen bilateral ties in the afterglow of the two countries’ success in working as a team in running the World Cup.

Kim thanked Koizumi for “coolheadedly” staying the sunshine course. If Japan and South Korea could only work together well enough to crack the feral North Korean puzzle, Koizumi might find himself next in line for a Nobel Peace prize. For that, even Koreans might cheer — especially Kim.

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